Ottawa shouldn't go overboard on life jackets -

Ottawa shouldn’t go overboard on life jackets

Ottawa cannot be expected to remove all possibility of risk from our lives

Ottawa shouldn't go overboard on life jackets

Getty Images; Darryl Dyck/CP

Coureurs de bois were Canada’s original action heroes. These rebellious bushrangers of New France rejected official efforts to control the entire beaver trade. Ignoring the need for a government fur licence, they took to canoes and sought adventure and profit on their own in the deepest woods. That freedom so many Canadians find in a summer spent camping or canoeing can be traced back to the coureurs de bois and their spirit of independence. Not to mention their lack of a mandatory life-jacket law.

It is once again boating season in Canada. And once again Canadians face the prospect that the federal government may decide to force every boater in the country to wear a life jacket.

Both the National Recreational Boating Advisory Council and the Canadian Safe Boating Council have been discussing mandatory life jackets for recreational boaters for many years. The CSBC is devoting an entire day to the subject at its annual meeting this September. A recommendation to Ottawa favouring a new law now seems inevitable. And the Ontario Provincial Police, Canadian Red Cross and Canadian Lifesaving Society all regularly demand mandatory personal flotation devices for anyone in a power boat or canoe.

Certainly every death by drowning represents a tragedy deeply felt by family and friends. But the question of whether or not a mandatory life-jacket law makes sense requires real evidence, not emotion. In fact, Canadians are making remarkable strides in water safety without any new life-jacket law.

The most recent data on drowning in Canada comes from a Transport Canada/Canadian Red Cross report released last year covering the period from 1991 to 2006. Despite its boosterish tone in favour of a life-jacket law, this report actually presents a convincing argument to the contrary.

In the first five years of study, from 1991 to 1995, 873 Canadians drowned while recreational boating. In the next five years, 718 Canadians drowned under similar circumstances. Between 2001 and 2005, the number of fatalities fell further to 555. Judging from the most recent statistics available, the next five years will continue this strong downward trend. Canada’s lakes, rivers and oceans are becoming noticeably safer from all perils. The annual incidence of all types of fatalities while boating (including drowning, hypothermia and trauma) has nearly halved over the past 16 years: from 0.84 per 100,000 population to 0.45.

To look at these statistics another way, consider if a mandatory life-jacket law had been introduced by Ottawa back in 1991. The inevitable conclusion today would be that the law had saved hundreds of lives. It would be heralded as a signature triumph of government initiative. In the absence of such a law, however, the actual evidence shows that Canadians themselves are already doing a remarkable job saving their own lives.

It makes sense for poor swimmers, children and anyone drinking alcohol to wear a life jacket while in a boat. (And of course drinkers should never drive.) Since existing law already requires sufficient flotation devices for all boat passengers, Canadians currently have the option to take this precaution if they so choose. But that decision should ultimately rest with the individual. Ottawa cannot, and should not, be expected to remove all possibility of risk or uncertainty from our lives. As a matter of fact, more Canadians drown in their tub than from a fall from a boat. Will mandatory bathroom PFDs be next on the agenda?

Turning a sensible recommendation on life-jacket use into an absolutist command would represent yet another bothersome and unnecessary intrusion into everyday life by a government that ought to have better things to do. If Canadians can’t find freedom in a canoe in the woods, then it can’t be found anywhere in Canada.

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Ottawa shouldn’t go overboard on life jackets

  1. I have a few comments to make:  People fought seat belt and helmet laws with the same justifications….if you want to die, it is your business.  The problem is that you might not die and you cost the taxpayer quite a bit of money if you have brain damage from the near drowning, not to mention from the time you spent in the hospital recuperating.  Also, there is the cost of finding your body.  If you had a life jacket on, you would be floating around.  How about this….you chose not to wear a life jacketand your estate picks up the tab for searching for your remains.  Furthermore, it is well and good for the children in the boat to wear a life jacket but what if the adults all drown.  You are going to leave one or more kids on the water to fend for themselves?  Everything in life is a matter of risk & benefit.  I knew of a guy who the minute he got over the border into the US on his motorbike, whipped off his helmet so he could feel the wind in his hair.  A half hour later he crashed. The resulting brain injury made impossible for him to return to his work managing a company.  Is wearing a helmet, a seatbelt or a lifejacket really that restrictive or does it just bother you that sometimes you have to  be made to do what  is best?

    • Unfortunately, healthcareinsider (and Caitlin), the “reduced cost to society” argument is an insidious worm that can easily justify all sorts of restrictive legislation; perhaps it is one argument to be raised, but it certainly doesn’t trump the argument that individuals should be, by default and to the greatest extent practical, free.  Legislation to prevent one individual from harming another individual is understandable, but when we start looking at society’s right to be protected from individual actions is when I break from this paternalism.

      Yes, we as a society have decided that it is in our best interests to, collectively, support search & rescue activities.  To then turn around and use that as an excuse to restrict behaviour because it increases the cost of that “collective voluntary” activity is one all-too-common way that individual freedom is insiduously eroded.  On the face of it your “estate” suggestion seems almost reasonable, but I argue it isn’t at all.  It is coercion by society, making the benefits of that society conditional on toeing the line… sure you are “free” to do anything you like, but don’t expect medical, S&R, or firefighting services if you breach any of these “voluntary” conditions.

      Why stop with lifejackets?  Boating is inherently more dangerous than building sandcastles on the shore.  Allowing individual cars is more dangerous than mass transportation in most cases (driver’s licenses could be issued on need as well as ability).  Mandating 30 minutes of calisthenics (supervised through our viewscreens) would have excellent public health benefit, as would banning television for that matter.  If that’s the cost of universal health care, I may actually support privatization.  At least then the coercion would come from corporate sleazebags rather than being in my name.

      Absurd of course, but then the coureurs du bois would have laughed out loud if anyone suggested their government would mandate PFDs.  Not that it should matter, but I use my seatbelt, PFD, and bike helmet religiously, though I’m old enough to remember the pre-seatbelt law days where I live.

  2. I agree with the author and would like to respond to the first comment (healthcareinsider).

    I take as a premise that society is a collective of equals wherein, among other things, the rights of others to make personal choices is generally respected as much as possible.


    1. Legislation should be a serious business and should not be brought to bear on matters where an expert suggests a Good Idea. While there is plenty of such legislation and regulation, it is generally (or should generally) be restricted to scenarios where the interests of the powerless might be defended against the interests of the powerful. For example, a relatively powerless employee might be required by a relatively powerful employer to work in the absense of safety measures. In such cases the only practically effective solution might be to make the safety measures mandatory through legislation. Though, even in such a scenario, to make the measures mandatory is not preferred (given the preceding premise). Afterall, other measures are avaiable incuding education for one, and for two, an agreement between the employer and employee where there is a power balance between employer and employee due to unionization, for example.

    I believe that a popular misunderstanding of the role of legislation in our society has grown out of a popular misunderstaning of actual legislation such as mandatory workplace safety. Now that there has long been safefy legislation in the workplace domain, too often, there arises a popular but inappropriate call for legislation in the personal domain where no legislation should be brought to bear.

    2. In other cases, legislated mandatory personal safety measures might be justified by the nature of an activity. For example, there is something unmistakably unnatural about regularly hurtling at 40km/h or more in a motor vehicle. In this example, the dangerous activity is made possible through technology and it is through technology that the safety measures are also made possible. It is because of this technology connection between the dangerous activity (eg motorcycle) and the safety measure (eg helmet) that there is indeed something sensible about legislation to conditionally coerce the adoption of both technologies. Speed boating certainly falls into the technology category and so it follows that it is not unjust to wield legislative powers to coerce adoption of safety measures such as lifejackets. To be sure, although coercion ot wear lifejackets is not unjust in the case of the speedboat, it remains not preferable to alternative measures (education, for example). Of course, canoing (and swimming, for that matter) certainly do not fall into the same category as the act of operating a motor boat and therefore canoing and swiming ought to be exempt from legislatively coerced (technological) safety measures.

    Whenever possible, it is mere education, not legislated coercion, that should be emphasized. By the way, the fact that education is a difficult on-going process does not justify a resort to legislation — howsoever much those who assume the burden to educate might wish to be relieved of their toils.

  3. Education is great if every boater actually understood and followed the
    rules of Canadian water ways. In 2009 it was mandatory for all Canadian
    Boaters (who operate an motorized pleasure craft) to get their PCOC (Pleasure Craft Operator Card) yet it is 2011 and there are still ~4 million Canadian’s that do not have it, ~2 million alone in Ontario.

    It is mandatory for someone who wishes to drive a car, van, truck,
    motorcycle etc. to obtain their drivers license and wear their seat
    belts. There should and is no difference on the water! Who is it hurting
    to make it monitory for everyone on the water, on a “craft” to wear
    their life jacket… the guy or girl who wants to get a tan?

    Maybe the reason why the boating fatalities has declined is because it
    is mandatory at this time that there is the same amount of life jackets
    available as there are people on the boat. This is a good start. Not to
    mention the real push by the government to have everyone certified has
    risen awareness about boating safety.

    Now a days with the different styles of life jackets and PFD’s there is
    no excuse for someone not to be wearing it. I agree with “healthcareinsider”
    regarding tax payers money for search, rescue, policing and so on. If
    it saves lives and/or would help find a missing person on the water,
    really… what is the big issue here.

    You wear your seat belt in your car… you get in an accident, the chances of you living are much greater. You don’t wear one, you will most likely die…

    You wear your life jacket on your boat… you get in an accident, the
    chances of you living are much greater. You don’t wear one, you will
    most likely die…

    Habit is everything and I personally believe the individuals who have an
    issue with this are individuals who grew up not having to wear one. “I
    have been boating for so and so number of year and I never had to wear
    one. I’m still here today!”. If we make it monitory for the youth to
    wear it, they will not know any difference and they will continue
    wearing them into their adulthood.  P.S. I love the comment regarding
    the parent that drown and leave the children in water. What are we
    really teaching our youth? Just wait until your older – you will have
    more fun if you are irresponsible! Youth look to their parents and the
    older generations for guidance and moral stability. By setting good
    examples now, you are setting them up for success.

    In more instances then none, its the other driver/boater that causes the accident. Your just along for the ride. But who am I? At this point be safe, have fun and I guess we will see what happens.